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Afghan projects slow to reach villages

Page 3 of 3 -- ''We need more construction, clinics, schools, irrigation canals," said Farhat, 32, looking across the fields that descend gradually from the village, a few growing radishes and corn, but most bare, dried mud. ''We have 2,000 schoolchildren just sitting in the field with no school building."

Battling drugs, violence
Despite their popularity, National Solidarity Program efforts often run afoul of the larger problems of drugs, lack of security, and warlords.

Gunmen stole about $1,000 of Bara Kala's program money in a holdup on the only road to the village from Jalalabad. Villagers blame frequent roadside robberies on gunmen following local militia leaders, warlords who provide most of the village's income through the drug trade, but who also extort money.

In Sandurwa, a village in neighboring Laghman Province, mortars and rockets rained down for half an hour Sept. 18 on the office of a nonprofit group helping carry out an NSP irrigation project. Government police were too far away to respond, so villagers grabbed their Kalashnikovs to repel the attack, NSP officials said.

The officials blame drug smugglers opposed to any economic development that would offer villagers an alternative to working with them. ''They think it will disrupt their business," said Oref Sahak, an engineer who supervises NSP projects in Laghman, a province of steep mountain chains split by dry river valleys that are carpeted in summer with yellow, red, and white poppies.

The violence drove project staff members from the area, so Sandurwa's project, lining an irrigation canal with cement to keep precious water from sinking into the ground, is now on hold for the second time. The first time, the villagers postponed it so that men, women, and children could work full time to harvest poppies.

The NSP canceled its project in Hassanzai, a village of mud houses in western Laghman, after it nearly veered into violence. Followers of a local militia commander brandished guns and threatened to attack villagers if the commander's son was not elected head of the project's planning council.

In the village of Samaram, militia commander Akram Khan is the police chief, and his in-laws head the men's and women's councils.

Samaram, a maze of mud walls, is set among hay fields. There are no cars; the only electricity comes from a privately owned water-powered dynamo. One recent afternoon, the streets, dirt paths barely wide enough for two people, were soupy from rare rainfall that sent torrents of water down the open sewers.

''The government has done no good works here," Khan's sister-in-law, Sharafa, 50, who heads the women's council, said as she sat proudly upright and received guests. She said villagers had been told that the projects that they want -- a girls' school and a bridge to allow them quicker access to a clinic across the river -- won't both fit in the NSP budget.

For now, girls stay home, while boys ride an hour on bicycles to attend a high school. But there is no teacher and no books, said Sharafa's brother, Said Wali, 19. ''We just sit and talk."

On paper, the village of Bara Kala has a women's council, but the women there seemed to know little about it; NSP workers say men have been known to hijack women's councils' agendas.

Rayana, one of a dozen women who were allowed to meet only female reporters and then only with a male relative listening in, said that after years of drought, villagers cannot grow enough vegetables and must buy them in the market, where the drug trade has inflated prices.

''Three years ago, our life was a forced life," Rayana said as she breast-fed the youngest of her eight daughters. ''Now . . . we are free to sit at home or work or whatever we like." But in the most important respect that change has been theoretical, she said, since there is no female teacher in town. ''Our men are very religious and they won't let girls [over 12] go to a male teacher."

The women were unanimous on what would give them more options: education.

''I have a relative who is educated who wants to teach the other girls," said Basnahar, an elderly woman. ''If someone would pay her, she is ready."

Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Washington, D.C. 

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